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Published: June 30th 2018
A Beach, of sorts, and life on the rocks.
Isle Royale, Houghton, Michigan
Staying up late is not something us old folks do too much - and we didn’t get to bed Friday night until nearly midnight. Still, it wasn’t too dark when we got back from the boat ride - the days are long around the summer solstice, and even longer up here in the North Country. Maybe it was the exhilarating morning air, or just the excitement of being in such a stunning place, but it wasn’t a morning to lay around in bed. Just too much to see outside to spend all your time inside!
So up in time to make the first breakfast call, back to the room to suit up, and out the door for our first hike. Following advice from a ranger and some other material, we decided to focus on the one small peninsula where Rock Harbor is located. Yes, that peninsula probably represents maybe 2% of the island. But unless you have the time and resources to backpack the wilderness, or engage in ten or twenty mile hikes, you will be hard-pressed to experience much more than that. We decided to hike the two miles out to the end of
this peninsula, Scoville Point, and back, totaling a little more than four miles. The first and last mile of the hike follow an interpreted path, the Stoll Memorial Trail, and the signs give helpful pointers on what is surrounding you. The middle two miles are in a wilderness area - the path is relatively easy to follow, because so many have done so before, but it is unmarked. I recommend this hike and, if you do it, make sure you go ALL the way out to the tips of the furthest rocks - it is a terrific experience.
Everyone says we should dress in layers because the temperatures vary and can change rapidly. This is, after all, an island in the middle of the largest, by surface area, fresh water lake in the world. Here the water and the air have a curious and equal relationship. Yes, winds pummel the island and bring the storms, but the lake has a moderating effect on everything around it and supplies the moisture that may or not rain down. The water temperature in Lake Superior might get to 50 degrees in the late summer, but in June it is a lot colder.
The ranger reported the temps around the island at 43 degrees in the water.
The cool lake temperature actually cools the island by several degrees. Although the middle of the island, at maybe twenty or thirty feet above lake level, might be a balmy 67 degrees, the area where the rocks meet the water is ten or even fifteen degrees cooler - all because of the effect of the lake. In the winter, the effect is reversed with the shoreline being warmer than the higher elevations.
This temperature variation plays out in the island forests. Right near the shoreline, conditions are too harsh for much of anything aside from lichens to grow. (We have pictures of some terrific color variations on the rocks, all caused by different kinds of lichen.) A little further from the shoreline, where the splashing waves don’t reach, you see small rugged plants trying to find a niche, often, literally between cracks in the rocks. Juniper, a plant that reminds us a lot of home, is abundant in this band. Then there is a ring of bushes, ferns, and flowering plants, many that don’t grow anywhere else.
Once you get inland maybe ten
or fifteen feet, again depending on wind, dirt, and lake water patterns, trees start to take over. Often the first trees you find are the spruce and firs because they are the hardiest trees and survive when other trees die out under the harsh spray of the lake. They also prefer the colder temperatures.
As you go inland, the elevation and the temperatures increase. At these locations, sugar maples, beech, and aspen find a niche because they like it a bit warmer than found at the shoreline. Additionally, these hardwood forests are the first to grow after the evergreen forests have been decimated for some reason - whether it is logging (most of the island was cleared in the early 1900s); disease (there have been documented epidemics of fungal infections); or forest fires (a major fire burned nearly half the island in 1936). The hardwood trees dominate for a generation, but are eventually replaced by the climax forest, the evergreens. Finally, at the highest elevations, along the Greenstone Ridge, for example, it becomes colder again and the north woods evergreen forests come back into play.
What all this means on a hike, is that in the course of
a few hundred feet, the forest can change dramatically. In an old growth spruce and fir forest, the trees can be so tightly packed that even sunlight has a hard time getting through. A little later, the sun is luxuriantly filtering through shimmering aspen leaves. The contrasts are quick to occur and provide a refreshing variation in experience.
Another common habitat on the island is the bog or wetland. Typically, on a maintained hiking path, boardwalks are provided to get you through these muddy areas. The bogs are fun places to walk through, in part because you have to keep your balance to avoid falling into the muck. But mostly, it is fun because there are so many plant variations, including carnivorous plants, and unique flowers.
So you see a lot of shades of green dotted with colorful white, yellow, orange, purple, and blue flowers. But you also see an awful lot of grays - the basalt rocks that form the bedrock for these islands. Over a billion years ago, lava poured from fissures in the earth generally where the middle of Lake Superior is now. These pools of lava were miles thick and took thousands of years
to cool. When they did they formed layers of differing consistencies and hardness. The weight of all that rock eventually sank the middle in a depression, folding the edges around it upwards. Those folds became both Isle Royale, and the Keweenaw Peninsula, both rich in copper lodes (with a little silver in it too). Normally, sedimentary rocks will develop on top of igneous layers, deposited by oceans and rivers over millions of years. For unknown reasons, no such deposits exist here.
Over a billion years, you would normally expect erosion to produce a rich base of soils. If that happened here, then there is little evidence of it, because the glaciers of the last million years scraped away whatever there might have been.
The result is that Isle Royale is basically an island of solid lava. Basalt rocks, pretty much of the same grayish brown color, dominate the rocky shorelines. If there is color it comes from the lichens that populate its surface.
The rocks themselves are of all different sizes - some, you can see, are in the process of breaking off from the main island to become islets of their own. Others have been worn
down by the constant pounding of Lake Superior into gravel size nuggets. Occasionally, you might see small pockets of dark sand.
Make no mistake, though - this is an island with a very old soul. Yes, there are some living plants and animals that populate its many nooks and crannies, but fundamentally this island resonates with the deep confidence that comes from very old age. Isle Royale does not try to dazzle you with impressive waterfalls, or roaring volcanoes. It doesn’t need to nurse its edges with soft-sand beaches, or crystal clear, warm, blue waters. This island really doesn’t care what you think - it was here long before we came to visit, and it will be here long after we disappear.
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